Stay well this winter

By Dr Clare Fernandes MBBS BSc DOccMed  •   Occupational Health Physician

The cold, wet and (extremely) windy weather is upon us as winter starts to rear its ugly head.

 Accident and Emergency departments are being inundated with patients, and hospital departments are showing the signs of strain from an already over-burdened system. 

Many of the patients we see are genuinely unwell, but have viral illnesses or other minor complaints that do not require a visit to the local Accident and Emergency Department. 

We appreciate that it is equally frustrating for patients but, even with health care professionals working their hardest, the sheer volumes of patients and lack of bed space means that waits are often long.

This advice is offered to guide you in times of sickness, to see you through the winter months with Christmas cheer, not pain and fear.

One of the most common reasons for people attending  A&E; the number of patients presenting with supposed ‘severe pain’ who have not tried to resolve it by taking painkillers is staggering. The first port of call if you feel pain should be to take some over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol, ibuprofen  or co-codamol. Keep a box at home for the times that you may need it.  If this resolves the pain, job done! If it doesn’t, and/or you still feel unwell enough to seek medical help, the painkillers will not mask your symptoms, as some mistakenly believe.

This advice does not apply to people with ischaemic heart disease or those who have had cardiac stents, bypasses or a heart attack. If you have chest pain, go to A&E! 

It also does not apply if you feel very dizzy or short of breath with the pain (to be clear, short of breath is gasping for air so that you can’t finish a full sentence without needing to take a breath) if this is the case, go to A&E!

There are lots of theories as to why we get a fever with an infection, but the jury is still out. One thing remains undoubtedly true: a high temperature can make you feel rotten. The body’s preferred temperature is between 37 – 37.5° C. The most common cause of a temperature is a viral infection, and the only way of combating it is taking paracetamol to bring the temperature down and rest to let your body fight the infection naturally. I recommend 1g of paracetamol up to four times a day with fluids and rest. In children, paracetamol four times a day, ibuprofen three times (doses vary with age), fluids and rest.

There are some nasty viruses around, causing diahorrea and vomiting in adults and children alike. There is nothing that can be done medically to rid you of these viruses, but if you are unlucky enough to be struck down by one, the best way to ride out the storm is to stay hydrated. Easier said than done with a vomiting bug, but drinking little and often is the trick. In children, 10mls of water or squash every 10 minutes for a few hours will help them to keep fluids down. Keep checking that their nappies are wet; this is a good sign that they are still hydrated. Remember to also check for rashes and do the glass test if you see any. If you are worried about your child, do seek medical help.  Adults, same applies to you – drink little and often, a few sips every 10 minutes will help you feel better

Think you have a urine infection or ear infection?  Your GP or out of hours walk-in centre is the place to go. You do not need blood tests or X-rays, and you will see somebody qualified to help you while leaving A&E free to see sicker patients.

Take your blue inhaler early. A little known trick is that, with a spacer (available from your GP) you can take one blue inhaler puff, breathe in and out 10 times, and repeat. Repeating this ten times is the equivalent of one nebuliser. Repeat the whole sequence as necessary.  However, if your symptoms do not abate, seek urgent medical help.

The ‘flu’ (influenza) can be a really awful bug that is prevalent in winter. Although it is a virus (and therefore can’t be treated with antibiotics), those with other medical problems find it harder to fight any severe infection, and the chance of getting a bacterial chest infection as a result of a flu-weakened immune system is a lot higher.  The flu jab primes your body so that you already have specific flu-fighting immune cells ready to tackle the virus if you get it, helping you to fight it and clear it quicker. The flu jab is available at your local surgery, and is free for:  the over 65s; those with lung conditions such as asthma or COPD; diabetics; those with kidney, liver or heart failure; those with HIV/AIDS; pregnant women and more. To find out if you are entitled to a free jab visit: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vaccinations/Pages/who-should-have-flu-vaccine.aspx

A word of warning – you can feel a bit under the weather after receiving a flu jab so, if at all possible, take it easy for a few days afterwards.

But, all is not doom and gloom! Winter brings crisp, bright mornings, Christmas, Santa, and mulled wine! So eat, drink (in moderation) and have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.